On Feb. 24, 2020, Stanford University installed a plaque bearing a quote from Chanel Miller’s powerful victim impact statement at an on-campus contemplative garden, five years after she was raped by Brock Turner and four years after Stanford promised the plaque.
The garden and plaque were both part of a written agreement settled between Stanford and Miller, who was known only as Emily Doe until September 2019. The garden stands near Lake Lagunita at the site of the assault, replacing the dumpster behind which Miller was assaulted.
The plaque reads, “You took away my worth, my privacy, my energy, my time, my safety, my intimacy, my confidence, my own voice, until today.”
Difficulties During Development
During the planning stage, Miller originally proposed a different quote for the plaque, but it was rejected by Stanford for its potential to be “triggering” for other sexual assault victims.
In a March 2018 “Notes from the Quad” blog post, Provost Persis Drell wrote, “We consulted with sexual violence counselors and others who work with Stanford students who are survivors of sexual assault. They advised that rather than creating a healing environment for survivors, the quote could have a serious, negative impact for some survivors of sexual violence.”
Miller then put forward the quote that was eventually installed, which Stanford also initially rejected and responded to by making their own quote suggestions. This prompted Miller to step away from negotiations altogether and resulted in criticism from students and professors alike.
Stanford Law professor Michele Dauber, a staunch supporter of Miller’s who led the effort to recall the judge from the Turner case, tweeted an email correspondence between her and Drell in which she defended the quote and advocated for a plaque to be put up with a trigger warning.
“This sentence was a headline in the Washington Post,” Dauber wrote. “It has been quoted in nearly every major publication that has covered this story and has been read live on CNN. It is not graphic and it is not triggering.”
Drell defended her decision in her email response.
“I am not going to question… professional judgement,” Drell said in the email. “I don’t consider the fact that Ms. Doe’s statements have been reported in the media to be a standard to use in making a judgement about whether or not it is triggering. I am only concerned about our students.”
Petitions, Protests and Public Pressure
Stanford’s decision to discontinue the plaque project launched a wave of outrage from the student body, according to Stanford graduate Hope Schroeder.
“There was a huge amount of student controversy as people realized Stanford was refusing to install the plaque,” Schroeder said. “(It was) upsetting to a lot of students who felt like this was yet another way that Chanel Miller was being silenced.”
Stanford graduate Stephanie Pham co-founded the Stanford student group Stanford Association of Students for Sexual Assault Prevention in her sophomore year with Matthew Baiza. Pham and Baiza, both Stanford students during the time of the Turner case, led sexual assault awareness campaigns with petitions and demonstrations throughout their undergraduate careers. She organized a protest at the site of the assault, calling on Stanford to install the plaque.
The website of Dear Visitor, another advocacy effort, hosts an audio clip in which Pham says, “When I heard that Stanford had done wrong by her again by rejecting her quotes and then proposing quotes … I remember being absolutely infuriated … With all this emotion and all these thoughts running through my head as a senior hoping to close out my year in a positive way I was like, ‘Let’s do one more rally.’”
Another key contributor in the student activism efforts was coterm student, former ASSU president and student activist Shanta Katipamula. She and the ASSU created petitions, rallies, posters and flyers for the plaque installation, which eventually shifted to focus on other sexual assault issues on campus.
“The message we wanted to send with that was ‘Chanel you are not alone, survivors at Stanford, you are not alone either, the student body is here, we have your back, we are going to act better for you,’” Katipamula said.
Katipamula also launched a petition drafted by ASAP for the plaque installation, as well as an apology from Stanford to Miller, which became an open letter and resolution form with over 1800 signatures. Professor David Palumbo-Liu, student body president Erica Scott, trauma expert Professor David Spiegel and various other faculty members spoke in favor of Miller’s quote at a Faculty Senate meeting. Afterwards, the Senate voted their support of the plaque installation.
“That was unreal,” Katipamula said. “I started crying because I hadn’t expected that support from the faculty, I hadn’t expected that they would essentially rebuke the provost to that degree, like that never happens at Stanford. That was a really amazing moment for all of the students, all of the community who had been organizing on this issue for so long to see that faculty support.”
As aforementioned, one of the most prominent events regarding the plaque was the launch of Dear Visitor, which was directed by Schroeder, with fellow Stanford graduates Khoi Le and Kyle Qian as co-technical directors. It was an augmented reality project showcasing two virtual plaques bearing Miller’s proposed quotes and letters written by those affected or involved. Visitors were then able to continue the quote cards from Katipamula’s rally, read aloud quotes from Miller’s book or victim impact statement in a sharing circle and write a letter of their own.
“The letters serve as a reflection that we haven’t forgotten the students who worked on this issue,” Schroeder said. “They are able to have a voice in this space because Chanel Miller used her voice so powerfully to write the letter that set everything off and set her story in motion, really reclaiming her voice.”
Schroeder said that she, Le and Qian were given a grant by Stanford to do an AR project, but they soon realized they needed a local prototype to test their ideas on and were drawn to the Chanel Miller plaque conflict.
“The main intention of this project obviously was not to just have it be a technological knick-knack but to really think about how can we empower Chanel Miller, put her words back in this space as they should be and use this interesting technology that we have access to to reimagine the space the way we think monuments should be,” Schroeder said.
Shan Reddy, a Stanford sophomore and Stanford Daily writer, said students also showed their support for Miller through protests and reading her book.
“They’re been having a couple of marches on campus,” Reddy said. “Her book has been very well-read around campus and the university provided free access to all university students of a PDF of the book.”
According to Schroeder, attendance during activism events was high, with a few students coming up with alternative ways to advocate for the plaque installation.
“There have been stickers with (Miller’s) plaque in bathrooms, there have been a couple of (placeholder) plaques that went up,” Schroeder said. “There was huge turnout of student activists at the events that we had and collaborated with people on.”
A New View
Eventually, on Nov. 12, 2019, Drell posted an update on the situation, saying that the student activism and results of the recent Association of American Universities 2019 Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct convinced the administration to go through with the plaque installation after all.
“The (student and staff) perspectives have been very useful and varied, and they have deepened my understanding that survivors of sexual violence process their experiences in very personal, nuanced, individualized ways,” Drell wrote. “The survey results provide a clear message: We need to confront sexual violence openly and aggressively at Stanford.”
A minor sizing error delayed the installation for a few more months until February. Reddy said that all the years it took for Stanford to react didn’t reflect well on the university.
“They put up the plaque many weeks after there was a lot of public outcry, so it seemed like they were doing it in response to the public outcry as opposed to as a result of the actual event itself,” Reddy said. “I think they could have been much more decisive about their opinions and views on the issue from the outset.”
The final design of the plaque that was installed was the one designed for the Dear Visitor project, which Schroeder said made her feel that Dear Visitor and all the other student activism played a pivotal part in the plaque installation. To resolve the conflict regarding the quote’s effect on sexual assault victims, Stanford also placed an additional plaque beside the garden entrance explaining what the site is and offering related resources.
Schroeder said she saw the installation as a bittersweet victory.
“(It was) cool but exhausting,” Schroeder said. “The fact that so many people, for lack of a better way of saying it, have had to waste so much energy fighting over this and lobbying for this is sad, because this is just accomplishing what was promised to Chanel four years ago.”
No More Emily Doe’s
Stanford has taken various steps towards sexual assault prevention and victim treatment, including providing rape kits at their ER and dedicating part of their website to a list of sexual violence resources. However, most feel as though this is not enough, including Provost Drell.
“In confronting sexual violence and harassment, we face a chronic public health issue that demands solutions from multiple sources,” Drell wrote in her post regarding the AAU survey results. “Despite many efforts at Stanford over the years, it is evident that much more needs to be done.”
The post detailed a series of steps Stanford planned to take towards sexual assault prevention, including a transgender support website and an anonymous feedback form.
Reddy says he’s optimistic but will be waiting for the results before making any judgement on the plan’s efficacy.
“I would hope that any official administrative action that Stanford University undergoes would be actionably beneficial, but I guess we won’t know for sure until we see it, at which point may be too late,” Reddy said.
Some ASSU students, like Katipamula, believe this is not enough.
“Most of what Stanford’s announced it’s doing as a result of the AAU survey was really disappointing because they’re things that have already been in the works for years,” Katipamula said.
Katipamula also criticized the promised anonymous feedback form and external review.
“There are so many (anonymous feedback forms) on campus and they essentially operate as a black box,” Katipamula said. “The people (Stanford) commissioned to be a part of the external review, it’s all administrators from peer institutions, from other Ivy League schools, schools that are just as bad as Stanford at handling this issue. If you were to do a true external review, you would bring in national experts, you would bring an organization that specializes in doing external reviews and they (Stanford) did not do that.”
She believes that Stanford first has to focus on improving their current counseling system.
“Recently we found out that they have been counseling victims and perpetrators in the same space,” Katipamula said. “It disincentivizes survivors from using those services. So that should be an easy fix where they just look at their scheduling, they make sure their times don’t overlap, they make sure their counselors don’t overlap.”
Katipamula also emphasized the importance of ongoing mandatory prevention training for students, as well as training student staff and leaders to respond appropriately.
“A lot of student organizations are struggling because the victim and perpetrator are both very integrated in our campus, they’re not just some random person,” Katipamula said. “(Stanford should) hire professional guidance to ensure that all of our student staff members can get more training on how to respond when one of their residents comes forward to them about this issue, because that is how a lot of reports of sexual violence make their way to the administration. How that first person that you tell reacts can have a huge impact on survivors and their path forward.”
Schroeder says she also remains cautiously hopeful that Stanford will improve in the future.
“I think Stanford is in a time of reckoning about this issue both in the way the race system is involved and in the way they support victims,” Schroeder said. “Stanford has a ways to go on this but I think installing the plaque is a good step and facing that facts on the results of the AAU survey is really important. There are incredible activists still on campus who are doing a lot of incredible work and hopefully the AAU survey is a massive wake up call for the Stanford community.”